The prehistory of the San Juan Basin
— Nancy S. Hewett


Visitors and residents alike have wondered about the lives of the "ancient ones"; the builders and inhabitants of the large masonry cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde and the imposing C-shaped towns in Chaco Canyon. Yet hundreds of exposed prehistoric sites in the San Juan Basin attest to a nearly contin-uous human occupation since the closing stages of Wisconsin glaciation.

The foundations of American archaeology were laid upon expeditions and surveys which began in the late 19th century. Primarily interest lies in amassing museum collections and exploration of the newly opened frontier territories following the settlement of the "Indian problem." The remarkable preservation in an arid and semiarid land drew regions of graduate students to the area to dig, while the living descendants of the Pueblo peoples stoically endured the curious ethnographer's endless probing. The artifactual remains also lured pothunters and Sunday afternoon explorers to the rubble mounds and trash dumps in search of turquoise beads and whole pots destined for private collections. Artifact associations, near and dear to archaeological research goals, were thus destroyed in the search for "goodies."

Within the last 20 years or so, archaeologists have increasingly called upon experts in allied fields to deal with the abundant information obtained from large scale projects and salvage programs. The multidisciplinary approach is now an accepted mode of operation, and elicits aid from geologists, biologists, botanists, ethnographers, statisticians, aerial and infrared photographers, as well as archaeologists skilled in specific categories of research and analysis. Ceramics, lithics, textiles, bones (anything associated with human occupation); all must be analyzed and interpreted. Always the reality of archaeologists are the logistics of setting up a field camp, and the ubiquitous shovel, screen and wheelbarrow operations.

The prehistory of the San Juan Basin has been drawn from nearly 100 years of surveys and excavations and, as the artifacts have accumulated in museum storerooms, the general outlines of prehistoric occupation have become more clear. The prehistoric technology represents a continuum of gradual changes in artifact inventory, largely the result of environmental fluctuations and the concomittant adjustments, and migrations into and within the area. The Four Corners region was seldom an area of optimum exploitation for food re-sources for groups utilizing a simple technology, and the prehistoric record reflects an increasing sophistication of technological adaptations to an often marginal environment. A significant problem of reconstructing prehistoric societies is the differential preservation of the record. Within a dry rock shelter, textiles, food remains and wooden artifacts accompany the more enduring pottery and stone remains and are used to better describe the life of their owners. Open sites, however, present a greatly diminished record and the scanty remains are patiently sifted and examined for clues. So much is lost. Language, social organization, folk tales, religious concepts and mythology and child rearing practices can only be speculated upon. Analogy with living Puebloan lifeways provide a valuable base upon which to build the framework of societal structure. We must keep in mind, however, that to day's Indians in the Southwest have borne some 400 years of contact, often repressive and destructive of their traditional culture..

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Recommended Citation:

  1. Hewett, Nancy S., 1977, The prehistory of the San Juan Basin, in: San Juan Basin III, Fassett, J. E.; James, H. L.; Hodgson, Helen E., New Mexico Geological Society, Guidebook, 28th Field Conference, pp. 65-75.

[see guidebook]